dkSez : : : : : : Don Kahle's blog

Quips, queries, and querulous quibbles from the quirky mind of Don Kahle

Why do people say 'after dark' when what they mean is 'during dark'? After dark would be when it's light again, right? * There are 10 types of people in this world -- those who read binary, and those who don't. * I'm rethinking the whole brown rice thing. What if it's just more white liberal self-hatred? Whole wheat, honey, unbleached flour. All better. Sez who? * Eugene should be HQ for White People for Diversity. We'll fight for diversity to be included in books, which is where we know to look for it. * Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but give a man a pillow, and he'll dream of steak. * What can you say about a state that puts the town of North Bend 225 miles southwest of Bend? We rely on visitors for entertainment.

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You Can’t Spell UGB Without Arithmetic

April 10th, 2015 · 2 Comments

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Academic controversies have a certain rhythm to their popularity. When new ideas are offered, many of us line up in support because we like what’s shiny and new. There’s nothing quite like that “new idea smell.” Once the novelty wears off and the idea becomes familiar, we forget about it until somebody offers a counterpoint, often packaged as the new new idea.

So it has been with the education industry’s recent infatuation with STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. We need to train more engineers, so Google and Facebook can hire more Americans.

Now comes the backlash, aiming to stem the STEM tide. As Eugene teacher Dave Sheehan wrote in last paper’s Sunday Commentary section, “By the eighth grade, 90 percent of us have learned just about as much math as we’re ever going to use in our lives.”

Sheehan is undoubtedly correct about what we’ve learned. I’m more concerned about what we’ve forgotten.

Portland State University’s Population Research Center recently released their projections for our area’s population growth. They are projecting that Eugene will add 40,000 new residents by 2035, to our current population of 185,000. Veneta is projected to add 2,500 people over the same time period to its current base of 5,200.

If those estimates are correct, Veneta will grow at twice the pace of Eugene over the next 20 years. And so, this newspaper’s recent headline on Page One was technically correct: “Big cities outpaced by small towns.” But that’s different than winning the race.

Rate of expansion, in this case, is as interesting as it is meaningless for how we live our lives. The raw number of people matters, because those people compete for our jobs or become our customers or get in line ahead of us at the grocery store. The percentage of people arriving just sits on a spreadsheet and stays there.

Let’s not confuse the rate of expansion with the actual number of people settling in each town. That’s like confusing the Most Improved Player and Most Valuable Player awards.

Wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd wasn’t the Ducks’ best football player last season; quarterback Marcus Mariota was. Mariota was quite a bit better in 2014 than he was in 2013, but Lloyd was infinitely better in 2014 than the previous year, when he was playing basketball.

Now back to PSU’s growth predictions.

The pace of growth is calculated by dividing the number of new people in each town (the numerator) by the number of people already living there (the denominator). Yes, Veneta is projected to grow twice as fast as Eugene. No, Veneta is not projected to add twice as many people as Eugene.

In fact, I ran the numbers. If the two cities’ growth rates continue forever at PSU’s estimates, Veneta will indeed begin adding more residents than Eugene — in 364 years! So it’ll be a while before Eugene is actually losing the foot race to Veneta.

This is not a misunderstanding without consequence. Eugene is currently wrestling with whether and how to expand its Urban Growth Boundary. It’s not uncommon to hear people claim, “If we don’t make more room for them in Eugene, all those people will just go buy homes in Veneta.”

If by “all” they mean “most,” they are referring to the year 2378. If by “all” they mean “some,” that’s always been true. Here’s what’s true right now. For every person who settles in Veneta, 16 other people choose Eugene.

Yes, it’s true that Veneta currently offers less expensive housing, but that won’t stay true forever. Local roads eventually will become congested. Sewer systems will reach capacity. Expanding Veneta’s capacity will someday become expensive, forcing taxes up or quality of life down. Either way, expansion slows.

As an architect once told me, “Urban planning would be a fun hobby, but you’d have to live 200 years to get any satisfaction from it.”

I’m not saying Eugene should or shouldn’t expand its Urban Growth Boundary. I’m saying we should remember whatever math we learned in eighth grade and use it.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 2 CommentsTags: Arr-Gee published · Civic · Urban Design · You-gene

Eugene’s Gross Domestic Laughter Index is Rising

April 3rd, 2015 · 7 Comments

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The Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce and The Register-Guard hosted their annual Economic Forecast this week, bringing some of the state’s top economists together to assess Lane County’s recent history and future prospects.

I wasn’t at the event on Monday. I joined a different panel of experts the night before, as one of a half dozen judges for Lane County’s 20th Annual Laff Off, choosing the area’s funniest person.

As it turns out, both panels came to the same conclusion.

Economists look at reams of data — unemployment numbers, construction permits, vacancy rates, airport traffic. These and many other factors were considered before they stepped onto the Hilton stage.

They pronounced our region healthy and thriving in ways unseen in their 21 years of analyses. As long as we continue to gain, train and retain talented workers, they see a bright future ahead.

The night before we confirmed there’s plenty of talent here. The two surveys should be taken together. Quantity of output and quality of life — who’d really want one without the other?

Economists quantified our area’s productivity and efficiency. As Laff Off judges, we did something similar. Our scoring can get quite technical, so don’t worry if it sounds overly complex. After 20 years, we’re trained professionals. We determined whether everyone was having a good time.

“Right now, Eugene is a hotbed of comedy and tonight’s Laff Off proved it,” announced organizer Leigh Anne Jasheway. “So many comics were equal to, or better than, those anywhere in the country!”

We deemed the local comedic workforce so talented that we gave the “funniest person” honor this year to two people instead of one.

Zachary Fish confessed that he’s unable to keep up with all the characters his daughter tracks during “My Little Pony” episodes, choosing instead to preserve his finite mental resources for doing his job at Lane Transit District and paying household bills.

“Sometimes I feel like the Apollo 13 crew, trying to get home on limited power: ‘We can turn everything off and just barely get back to earth. Or we can microwave a Hot Pocket. Mmmm! A Hot Pocket sounds pretty good right now.’” I’ve never heard a better metaphor for modern man’s daily dilemma.

Then there was Fish’s co-champion, Lucy Glass, who wished she had the skills of a ventriloquist, only so she could carry on a conversation with her dentist during her checkup. She added gratuitous difficulty to her five-minute routine by structuring some of her jokes as haiku, just to show she could — or almost could.

In 20 years of evaluating local comedic talent, I’ve never seen a stronger line-up. One third of the 22 comedians who took the stage could have been crowned funniest in any other year. We saw both depth of insights and breadth of styles.

More importantly, the audience loved it. I’m not talking about polite laughter, tossing chuckles at craven beggars holding microphones. This was spontaneous, involuntary, physically contorted laughter. The full house at Actors Cabaret left exhausted from appreciation.

We heard how hard it is for a lesbian who is over 6 feet tall and built like a lumberjack to find love in Lane County. We were asked why it’s considered necessary to wash our hands after — but not before — using the restroom. Or why doesn’t offer recommendations for vasectomies.

Sometimes you can see the edginess better than the edges themselves. We’ve definitely widened our scope of discourse over the past 20 years, but it cannot easily be quantified. If it was tallied and shown as a pie chart, it should land on somebody’s face.

We laugh harder, and at more things, than we used to. We take ourselves less seriously. That makes everything a little bit easier.

Whether it’s getting incorrect change at McDonald’s, feeling offended by somebody’s political incorrectness, or losing your turn at a busy four-way stop sign, life is easier if there’s a smile somewhere in it. That preserves our energy — expressed here in haiku:

More for what matters — building our collective wealth — not that Hot Pocket.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Campaigning Builds a Skill Most of Us Lack

March 27th, 2015 · 6 Comments

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It doesn’t matter who placed the call and it barely matters what her concern was — the call and the gripe both are that common. She had just returned from a Eugene City Council work session and she was frustrated. It could just as well have been a school board or a county commissioners meeting.

She called me because I “always have an unusual perspective.” I didn’t disappointed her.

“The city councilors are all good people,” she began, “but they don’t know enough about this particular topic to make good decisions.” Again, the topic is not relevant. I’ve heard the same complaint around building codes, tax policies, transportation engineering, noise abatement, and animal control. “I wish there was a way to make them take a class [on the topic at hand] before they ever cast a vote on city policy.”

Then she got to her felt pain. “We’ve done so much work on this topic. We’ve devoted so many hours to it. It’s really hard to see them wave our opinions away, to dismiss them so easily. How can we get them to respect us?”

Hers was a heartfelt and genuine quandary. I confess my response was more rhetorical than her question.

“Have you ever knocked on a hundred strangers’ doors on a Saturday afternoon? I know I haven’t,” I said.

“Me neither,” she replied, unsure where I was going.

“Elected officials have done that, literally,” I said. “In some ways they are doing it all the time — answering emails from people they don’t know, getting quoted in newsletters read by people they’ve never met. Would you agree that’s a skill?”

“I can see that,” she replied.

“Isn’t it a skill we don’t have?”


“Can we respect them for that skill?” Now she could see where I was going.

We are more likely to see that trait in a negative light. We may admire the hard work involved, but we can’t fathom what would drive somebody to spend their Saturday talking to strangers on their doorsteps.

Just because it’s foreign to us doesn’t mean we can’t respect others for it. Respect is a two-way street, so the best way to get it is to give it first. I know that’s simple to say and hard to do, but it’s true.

Knocking on all those doors teaches someone certain things about this community — and about themselves — that you and I may not know.

They’ve learned to formulate policy positions that accommodate a wide range of opinions. They’ve learned how to make alliances around certain issues to expedite other issues. They’ve learned what matters most deeply to them and to their supporters.

A good politician can be like a tuning fork, quickly finding the frequency that communicates with the most clarity. The best ones can do that without ever betraying their own values and beliefs.

Sometimes they ask the public to weigh in on an issue. Or they survey in private those they consider to be a representative sample. Or they simply follow their conscience, knowing that their constituents will use the ballot box to voice their views.

Most issues we face have at least three dimensions of complexity. Staff and legal counsel can tell them what’s allowed or required. Activists, staff professionals and civic volunteers can weigh in on what may be technically possible, or what other communities have done.

How any particular solution will be viewed by the public — analyzing that political dimension is what our elected officials must do. No amount of technical or regulatory clarity can substitute for anticipating how it will play to the people.

We need our best talent addressing each dimension of any complex problem, respecting what the others have contributed and moving forward together.

The last speech I ever heard Dave Frohnmayer give described how his political campaigns taught him empathy. Learning how “to read a room” also made him a better father, professor, dean, and college president.

He quoted Lyndon Johnson’s complaint about John F. Kennedy’s “brightest and best” technocrats who got us militarily mired in Vietnam: “I wish just one of them had run for dogcatcher once.”


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 6 CommentsTags: Arr-Gee published · Civic · Psycho · Pure Pol · You-gene

There’s a Job Hillary Would Like Better

March 20th, 2015 · 13 Comments

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Elizabeth Warren was walking with one of her aides between her Hart Senate Building office and the elevators. She was in conversation, but her eyes met mine when she was about 30 feet away. She kept talking as she walked, but kept almost continuous eye contact with me as she approached.

When she was about five feet away, she interrupted her own conversation. “Hi, how are you?” she said with a smile. She didn’t slow down, and immediately after passing me, she continued the conversation with her aide. The rhythm of that exchange, the glint in her eye, the slight smile, and the extended connection combine for what campaign consultants call a “hot connect.”

No real information was exchanged — only feelings, affirmation and endorsement.

Bill Clinton is the modern master of the hot connect. My son and I went to Mac Court to see him when he campaigned for Bill Bradbury. He ended his time by pressing the flesh, and I mean that literally. I left impressed at how fleshy his hand was. My son was thrilled to have touched a sitting president. Hundreds left with the same impression. Add to that — and this is important — we all left Mac Court believing Clinton enjoyed himself.

Clinton’s wife Hillary is not known for her ability to make that hot connect. She much prefers the intellectual exchange, also known as the “cold connect.” She excels at winning arguments, but I don’t believe she would have made anything but momentary eye contact if she had been the one walking toward me in the Hart hallway.

That doesn’t make her a bad person — only a bad politician.

The conversation with her aide would have been what mattered to her, deserving her undivided attention. You couldn’t successfully argue with her otherwise. She’d win the argument but lose the voter.

During a New Hampshire debate in 2008, Barack Obama famously reassured her, “You’re likable enough,” but he may have already been thinking about her as his Secretary of State.

Hillary could be a very good president, but not unless she’s first a successful presidential candidate. That’s where most of the doubt lies.

Last week’s imbroglio was about her emails during her tenure as Secretary of State is the same drama we’ve seen play out over and over again. She obviously prizes her privacy and no one can blame her, after all she’s been through.

But privacy isn’t one of the perks afforded a president of the United States — even less so a candidate for the job. We can’t ask her to give up her privacy, but we can ask her to find a different line of work that will fit her comforts better.

No Democrat dares to run against her for the 2016 nomination, but she and other Democrats know the party would benefit from a campaign that sharpens talking points and raises awareness. No Democrat wants to oppose a woman seeking the highest office in the land, much less one who has coveted the job for her whole adult life.

But there might be a way.

Only three Democrats have the star-power to share the stage with Hillary Clinton: Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Al Gore. Experts think only Warren can realistically raise enough money to mount a credible challenge, although Gore is now richer than Mitt Romney, so that offers a new sort of intrigue.

But what if one of them could gain Hillary’s consent to challenge her? No one would be asked to throw the match, because both would recognize the winner will be strengthened by the competition. If Hillary could be protected from the downside of losing, she might welcome the struggle with uncharacteristically open arms.

Her devotion to public service is genuine, so what job would give her that comfort?

Imagine Hillary Clinton as a Supreme Court justice — fighting for verdicts behind closed doors, shaping the nation’s direction for the rest of her active life. It could happen only if a president pledged absolute loyalty all the way to a Senate floor vote, but then Hillary would have what Hillary really wants: public service, job security, and near-absolute secrecy.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

→ 13 CommentsTags: Psycho · Pure Pol

Suggestive Moves Provoke Questionable Response

March 20th, 2015 · 2 Comments

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Suggestive moves are by definition not declarative. And so, University of Oregon Board Trustee Ginevra Ralph should be commended for asking what certain cheerleading moves are meant to convey. As one of the new leaders of Oregon’s flagship university, she demonstrated educational excellence on multiple levels.

Universities across the country recently have been embroiled in a constellation of issues that point toward sexual predation. This is a nettlesome issue across society but it’s more complicated on campuses, where all sorts of expression and freedom are being explored. Creating a single “student body” monolith doesn’t help.

There can be no single standard for student body behavior when half its population is striving to become young adults and the other half is choosing to act like children. To make matters more confusing, many or most of those students straddle that adult-child divide, switching sides as circumstances change.

Add alcohol and assorted pressures (peer, parental, financial, and academic) and you have a tinderbox set beside a spark collection.

If anyone has made a case that graduated quarterback Marcus Mariota and expelled basketball player Brandon Austin are roughly equivalent in anything but athletic maturity, I haven’t heard it. But that’s not the conversation we’re having. Instead, we agree that the line is blurry between what’s appropriate and what isn’t. We’re more comfortable with blurry lines than with blurry people.

But the strategy to clarify what’s blurry is the same. If it’s unclear, you ask questions. So when the topic turned to sexual assault and campus culture, that’s what Ralph did: “Where does the [cheerleaders’] … bump-and-grind, pelvic-thrusting dancing … fit in this context?”

Inquiring minds should be encouraged to ask questions. The leaders of those inquiring minds should do the same.

It cannot have been easy. No other trustee followed her lead. She wasn’t sticking to the script. Ralph asked her colleagues to engage in a genuine — unrehearsed — discussion about the issue. Now, thanks to the attention her question has brought, they probably will have that discussion.

Leaders often want to skip the discussion, head straight into deliberating specific proposed solutions and then deciding which solution to support. Discussions are harder to predict and much harder to control. They can slow the orderly decision-making process considerably. But no one benefits when an ineffective decision is reached efficiently.

The UO Board of Trustees has been asked repeatedly to be more open and transparent. Ralph showed them the way this week. Other board members have probably already done this in private, but they should publicly thank Ralph for that momentary discomfort her openness created. They should embrace dissent and engage the discussion.

Students will be watching, including ones who want to learn how to suggest adult responsibility in opposition to their peers’ adolescent tomfoolery.

This “teachable moment” is a new one. Never in the University of Oregon’s history has its leadership been both local and collective. Ralph spoke as one-of-many, not as one-of-one. She led with a question, carefully posed — not a dictate.

Most important decisions that most of us will make in life are the product of just the sort of give-and-take that Ralph invited her colleagues to undertake. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but many of the subtle signals people exchange around sexuality would benefit from exactly this same sort of verbal give-and-take.)

Navigating group dynamics to reach collective decisions is an essential skill for the good citizens our university hopes to train. Those skills will be on full display during the next Board of Trustees meeting. If they do it well, they’ll be earning that trust, making it easier for the students and teachers to follow. Trustees need trusters.

As author James Surowiecki showed in “The Wisdom of Crowds,” we’re calculably smarter together than any of us are individually.

Intelligence is good, but it cannot match the power of open dialogue, shared intent, and community values. Again, Ralph has shown the way. Asking hard questions is where it all begins, and the university should be the best place for that beginning to occur.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 2 CommentsTags: Arr-Gee published · Civic · Deep · Psycho · You-gene

Protecting People Doesn’t Make Them Safer

March 6th, 2015 · 11 Comments

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Last Tuesday’s front page of The Register-Guard featured two stories that don’t seem related, but they are.

Our community grappled with tragedy after three young children were hit by a truck and killed while crossing Main Street in east Springfield. Below the fold, scientists have shown that children exposed to small amounts of peanuts are less likely to develop a life-threatening peanut allergy.

Now a study published in the March issue of “Pediatrics” has shown that children are half as likely to develop allergies of any sort if their family washes dishes by hand. The so-called “hygiene hypothesis” contends that high-temperature dishwashers deny children the exposure to bacteria and viruses that allow their immune systems to develop healthy tolerances.

In all three cases, we’re faced with a heart-breaking conundrum. It is this. Protecting people may not make them safer — at least not for very long.

We’re powerfully adaptive creatures. When environmental changes occur, we take note. If there’s a crosswalk painted on the pavement and a warning light flashing, we feel safer. As we feel safer, we naturally become less careful.

The details of that deadly crossing in Springfield are still being determined and nobody wants to believe that the deaths of three children under the age of ten couldn’t have been prevented. Slower speeds could help. Safer crossings are always welcome.

But we must also let go of the idea that anything can guarantee our safety every minute in every circumstance. Indeed, what these two scientific studies have demonstrated is that children — on a molecular level! — can be imperiled by the protections we sometimes give them.

My grandmother grew up on a farm. She had a certain disdain for the suburban cult of cleanliness that grew up in the 1960s. “Ah,” she would proclaim dismissively, “you eat a peck of dirt before you die.” She said it with such confidence that you could be certain she heard it from her mother or grandmother first.

And now there’s science to back her up.

Fitting this conundrum into our lifestyle choices is very hard work, especially if we’re raising children. Who wouldn’t want to protect their child from every possible harm imaginable? Knowing the danger of overprotection doesn’t change how it feels.

A Facebook friend started a post recently with the words, “So it’s happened,” as if to convey the story’s inevitability. He and his wife are part of a nationwide movement to raise “Free-Range Kids.” Rather than imbuing their children with a pervasive “stranger danger” fear, they are purposely and carefully encouraging their children to explore their neighborhood.

The “so it’s happened” incident occurred when a neighbor’s concern was misinterpreted by their daughter. She thought she was in trouble for walking down the block alone. In Virginia and in other states, parents are being arrested for negligence under similar circumstances.

The workaround they’ve developed is to give their kids walkie talkies to carry when they are out — sort of a mobile version the baby monitor that parents install near cribs.

Others have taken on the task of raising public awareness among their neighbors. Nobody has suggested taping “Not Lost” flyers to telephone poles, but maybe that’s next. Children learn to be afraid. We teach them.

I remember playing hide-and-seek across an entire neighborhood, riding in a car without seat belts to slake our thirst with root beer floats, and then sleeping under front-yard bushes. Hindsight can be beneficial, but can you spot the greatest danger?

Most would answer the lack of seat belts, but statistically, it’s the root beer. Obesity is projected to shorten the lives of more than half of America’s young people.

The Free-Range Kids movement acknowledges that we’ll never be able to protect our children as much as we would like. Certain dangers, like Springfield’s tragedy two weeks ago, are startling and upsetting. But others, like childhood obesity and allergies, are more pervasive and more preventable.

We can start by allowing our children (and our neighbors’ children) a bit more freedom, making it easier for them to exercise their bodies, minds and immune systems.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 11 CommentsTags: Arr-Gee published · Civic · Deep · Psycho · You-gene

Filibuster Talk Won’t Work Unless Senators Listen

February 27th, 2015 · 3 Comments

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Oregon Senator Bob Packwood led the news on February 25, 1988.

Democrats in the United States Senate wanted to pass some campaign finance reforms. Republicans were opposed. The Democratic leadership tried to force Republicans to filibuster their bill. Republican minority leader Alan Simpson of Wyoming repeatedly noted the absence of a quorum.

Republicans held 46 seats, enough to stop the Democratic agenda. They also wanted to save themselves the trouble of an all-night talkathon. Denying the body its quorum was the tactic they chose. Republicans met in the cloakroom and dispersed from there. Packwood returned to his office, locked the doors, and watched the proceedings on television.

Democrats realized they’d been had and so they relied on one of the Senate’s earliest rules to remedy the situation. Sen. Robert Byrd, a master parliamentarian, invoked “a call of the house” to reach a quorum.

That authorized the sergeant-at-arms to arrest any recalcitrant senators and bring them to the chamber so that work could resume. When Capitol Police came looking for Packwood, he was given up by his cleaning lady. His office door was forcibly opened (or broken down, depending on the news account) and he was brought into the chamber feet first at 1:17 AM.

The Senate didn’t much care for the image of one of their own being carried in against his will. They probably cared even less for Packwood’s grandstanding about the experience. “I rather enjoyed it,” Packwood told the Associated Press. “I’ve instructed four of my staff to get a sedan chair.”


For the other 99 members of what’s been called the world’s most exclusive club, that comment (and the related photo op) may have struck a bit too close to home. Not only did Republicans succeed in blocking the proposed legislation, but they made Democrats look bad in the process.

If the scene described sounds familiar to you, it may be because it was playfully but accurately portrayed in a melodramatic climax during season two of “House of Cards.” (Season three is being released by Netflix today.)

Now comes Sen. Jeff Merkley, also of Oregon. He and other reformers would like to see the United States Senate require a “talking filibuster” similar to Jimmy Stewart’s depiction in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The United States Senate is famously proud of its traditions. Adherence to its own rules is only slightly less important than fulfilling its obligations prescribed in the Constitution. The filibuster rule dates back to 1806. Its practice began in 1837.

But the rule that (literally) ensnared Packwood is older than that.

The Senate originally dispersed in the summer as farm and harvest duties drew Senators back to their home states. Some couldn’t resist leaving before the summer recess began, leaving leaders without a necessary quorum. Without a quorum, nothing could be done.

In 1798, the Senate adopted a rule allowing less than a quorum to authorize expenses for the sergeant-at-arms to bring absent members back to the chamber. Those senators who had prematurely left town (or hidden in their office) could be chased down and brought back. They would be then obligated to pay whatever expenses the sergeant-at-arms incurred in returning them.

As anyone who watches C-SPAN closely can attest, the Senate floor fills for votes and empties for speeches. But the rule requiring senators to be in attendance is still on the books and can be invoked by any senator at any time.

“You cannot force senators to talk during a filibuster,” according to Bob Dove, who served as Senate parliamentarian from 1966 until 2001 and wrote a book on the topic. The Senator could simply say, “I suggest the absence of a quorum.” That would trigger a roll call. When that finished, the Senator could again notice the absence of a quorum and start the process all over.

Without a quorum, the only options available would be recess, adjournment, or compelling Senators to attend. In other words, the Senate could indeed require a Senator to talk during a filibuster, but not without also requiring 50 other Senators to sit and listen.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 3 CommentsTags: Arr-Gee published · DC · Pure Pol · Upper-Left-Edge

Draining Traditional Distinctions Creates Modern Perils

February 20th, 2015 · 5 Comments

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We’re in the midst of a profound unraveling. I’m not thinking about the upheaval we’ve been watching at the Oregon governor’s mansion, but even that is part of the civic centrifuge we’re witnessing.

We’ve always been told that we can count on only a few certainties: life, death and taxes, by some accounts; love and war, by others. These fundamentals are shifting under our feet, slowly but surely. Look no further than the daily headlines.

No need to discuss measles and vaccinations again. Everybody has their opinion fixed by now. But how did it return as an issue at all? Measles went away, but then came back. Herd immunity gave us a mathematical protection from an epidemic. Dissenters seemed harmless. Once we slipped beneath that numerical threshold, we found ourselves facing a possible crisis and a real panic.

We thought we were protected, because we were. Slowly that changed, until we weren’t safe any more. Small changes can evade our detection.

A British biotech firm wants to release millions of genetically modified mosquitoes in southern Florida. They’ve done it already in Brazil. They hope to slow the plague of dengue, which is migrating north as the planet warms — another possible epidemic knocking at our door. Other British scientists have plans to combine two women’s DNA during in vitro fertilization to sidestep certain genetic defects, giving the child literally three parents.

Have we really thought these remedies through?

On the other end of the spectrum, Facebook last week changed its policy and will allow users to live forever on its site. Simply designate a “legacy contact” who will be allowed to respond to new friend requests, update your cover photo and profile, and post on your behalf after you die. Death, where is thy sting?

Nothing focuses a person’s mind like death or a nation’s resolve like war, but even here, we’re erasing the lines we’ve been careful to color inside. How do we declare war against something not yet declared a country? The so-called Islamic State claims a caliphate for itself, but without borders or diplomats or trash collection. What exactly is our goal?

A mythical state cannot surrender a sovereignty it never gained, so how do we wage war against it? What would victory even look like? We can relax after they’ve stopped threatening us, but it could eventually return — just like measles did.

Taxes are no longer as clear as they were just a few years ago. Individuals who fail to purchase health insurance will soon be getting a bill from the Internal Revenue Service. Is that a fee, a penalty, or a tax? The Obama administration claimed it’s a fee, but the United States Supreme Court classified it as a tax. Now some of the subsidies provided by the Affordable Care Act are coming under similar scrutiny. What you call something can change what it becomes. It’s all getting very confusing.

Which brings us to now-former Governor John Kitzhaber. He’s not confused, he has claimed, but we are.

Details already are emerging about how his lawyers intend to defend him. Since Cylvia Hayes was only the governor’s girlfriend until last summer, and only his fiancée since then, she is not legally part of his household.

Even though she lived with the governor and identified herself as Oregon’s first lady, only marriage would make her a public official, binding her to certain ethics laws and disclosure obligations. The trouble here is that Kitzhaber also would like to claim confidentiality privileges that are afforded only to spouses. (Oregon does not recognize common law marriages.)

If he’d been trained as a lawyer and not as a doctor, he may have seen sooner the tightrope he was walking. But we’re walking it too. We’re fine with our governor cohabiting with his girlfriend because we’re modern, enlightened, tolerant people. Marriage doesn’t really matter, until it really does.

We keep throwing out the bathwater of distinctions, figuring the babies can fend for themselves. I’m not suggesting the bathwater doesn’t need changing — only that it’s the babies that really matter, if only because they end up looking a lot like us.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Celebrate a Tiny Treasure on Friday the 13th

February 13th, 2015 · 5 Comments

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Today is Friday the 13th, and a month from now, we’ll have another. Two days of superstition rarely fall so closely together. Let’s Seize the Day(s) and consider how lucky we are — granting that luck comes in two flavors.

When random misfortune befalls us, we describe ourselves as “unlucky.” That’s proof enough for me that good luck is where we naturally begin. Bad luck is less than nothing — it’s only good luck lost. And so, reflecting on our collective misfortune can wait until March.

Look around you. The air is clear. The water is clean. The sky is blue. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. It is February, after all — the month everyone wants to pass through quickly. We’re glad they made it shorter than all the others for a reason.

But even in February, good luck is all around us. You have your list of favorites and I have mine. Lists don’t always make good reading, so I’d rather direct your attention to just one good luck charm that is available to all of us.

It’s invisible but not unseen. It makes very little noise itself, but its sounds are familiar to many. Its mission focuses on children, yet only our senior citizens witnessed its birth.

The Pacific Northwest never had an FM radio signal until KRVM-FM went on the air in 1947. Its operating license has been held by a single owner — the Eugene 4J School District. Kids — high school students and younger — have held the public trust, while learning to communicate clearly, show up on time, and build their confidence.

When the students should be sleeping or studying, adult volunteer deejays fill the chockablock schedule of diverse musical tastes that cover the gamut.

I love our public radio stations, and we have plenty of them, but KRVM-FM is a rare species in the genus. High school radio stations usually have low-wattage signals with a neighborhood reach. KRVM-FM is 15,000 watts, reaching the coast and the mountains. A Sheldon High School student may not be able to find Reedsport on a map, but her voice finds its way into Reedsport homes.

Somehow — remember, our topic today is luck — elected school board members have resisted the temptation to divest the school district of the radio station. Just imagine how many management consultants have advised how many superintendents to sell the station and use the money to buy more books! In a business as bruising as radio, with larger conglomerates buying smaller conglomerates, KRVM-FM has somehow held on, Keeping Real Variety in Music.

Who do we thank for this local treasure? Well, nobody. Or everyone. It just ambles along, powered by the passions of its volunteers and its listeners. It boasts no grand design, no lofty aspirations, except to keep doing what it’s been doing for 68 years.

It’s easy to miss the valor of “Just Showing Up” every day for decades. I like to think of the slow-and-steady ones as horizontal heroes. There’s not a moment when the heroism spikes to an amazing height — only a steady stream of sameness, stretching across time. There’s a courage to consistency.

KRVM Operations Manager Cambra Ward estimates that every week, adult volunteers contribute 150 hours to the station. Her guess is way low; I guarantee it. There’s just no good way to tabulate the moment of inspiration that happens in the shower, or the fascinating triptych of melodies that pop into a deejay’s head from the pillow, as if delivered by a dream that crossed over into the waking world.

On the other end, there’s no way to know how many people clean their garage or kitchen at a particular time each week because of the companionship they trust, coming from their radio. Or the gatherings that form around listening parties. Or the conversations that begin because of a comment offered over the air. Public trust, indeed.

We can’t know how much good has come to us, for how long, or from where. Some of our fortune is untraceable and incalculable. So we just call it luck and consider ourselves lucky.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Both Sides Are Right: A System Error Has Occurred

February 6th, 2015 · 3 Comments

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Let’s not talk about vaccinating children for a moment, even though Lane County has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation. Let’s talk about how we talk about vaccinating children.

I know a few anti-vaxxers and I can tell you this. They are smart and good-hearted people who want to do what’s right. I also know some public health professionals who believe vaccinations may not be perfect, but they provide our best protection against epidemics. They also are smart and caring people, dedicated to what’s in the public’s best interest.

So, who’s right? They’re both right, and that’s what’s wrong.

Each side believes in doing the right thing, but they evaluate the rectitude of the choices offered differently. Here’s where language has us bollixed up, to use the technical term.

Let’s suppose the words “moral” and “ethical” should not be used interchangeably, but separated to denote different systems of thought.

Morality is our oldest system of evaluating ourselves — “pertaining to character or temperament,” according to the word’s 14th century roots. Religions are rooted in morality. So are wars. In a world that pits good versus evil, what must you do to protect and provide for your own — your body, your family, your tribe?

Ethics came later, building upon what came before. Its earliest definition refers to a “science of morals” or a systemization of morality. When humans began cohering into larger groups, that systemization became essential. Rulers needed to maintain order across languages, locations, religions and tribes. Laws were published and criminals were punished so that empires could be built.

The first system defined individual character (good or evil) and the later system evaluated actions (right or wrong).

These systems usually fit together just fine, but not always. Social scientists have even coined a term for the various thought experiments where they diverge. Imagine a trolley careening down a steep street. Dozens of passengers are headed for death, but you have an opportunity to save them. All you have to do is push a certain fat man into the path of the trolley. (Sorry, but your own body mass will not suffice to slow the car.) It will kill the man, but save dozens of others.

In other words, do you inflict personal harm to one (a morally repugnant act) to save dozens of others (an ethically defensible motive)? These dilemmas are called “trolleyisms.” The trolley story is handy because it’s scalable. What if your action would save not dozens, but hundreds? What if the man would be maimed but not killed?

Using the current parlance, ethical behavior is utilitarian in its nature. What’s best for everyone, granting that trade-offs are inevitable? The ethical system spins outward — what will do the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time?

The moral system is simpler, if only because it asks you to consider fewer people. Morality spins inward. The harder you think about that sort of “right thing to do,” the smaller (and stronger) your circle of protection becomes.

There are plenty of exceptions, but conservatives look to morals and liberals consider ethics. Televangelist Jerry Falwell couldn’t have led the Ethical Majority. The New York Times would be pilloried by its liberal readers if its Sunday magazine advice column was titled “The Moralist.”

Now apply this keener distinction to the vaccination dilemma. A parent feels morally obligated to protect her child from any risks related to vaccination. It doesn’t matter how likely or how severe those risks are. The parent’s view is “zoomed in.”

The public health official has a wide-angled lens, surveying steps to protect the public from an epidemic. Taking a public stand against vaccinations would be considered unethical. Once vaccination rates fall below what’s necessary for herd immunity, the trolleyism appears.

An awful (and I do mean awful) lot of our modern conundrums can be better understood after we delineate which system we’re using to determine whether we’re doing the right thing. You can find the trolleyisms clouding our discussions about guns, drugs, prisons, abortion, health care, climate change, and jihad. I suggest you start with Oregon’s “gay wedding cake” controversy.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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